Less than two months from now and the Wherry Lines transformation will reach its final stage, with a three-week shutdown to complete and commission long-delayed re-signalling of the lines from Norwich to Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft.
Already this year we have seen the end of loco-hauled Class 37 services and, more recently, the rather less-lamented exit of the single car Class 153 “Scuds”, as the new Class 755 units make their delayed appearance.
Having written many articles about the line’s signalling attractions over the past three years, I was delighted to be invited by Network Rail to pay visits on Tuesday, 3 December to the five splendid signal boxes that will close early next year.
While the two swing bridge boxes on the Norwich to Lowestoft route, at Reedham and Somerleyton, will remain manned, the boxes at Acle and Yarmouth Vauxhall will close on 31 January 2020, with those at Brundall, Oulton Broad North and Lowestoft Central following two days later.
So, to begin a tour of the five doomed boxes, an early morning visit first to Oulton Broad North. Here there is a Great Eastern Railway (GER) Type 7 box that dates from 1901.It hosts a 35-lever frame, with just seven remaining semaphores, including a down distant (OB3) and junction signals (OB31/28) where the Norwich route and East Suffolk Lines divide east of the station – as seen below.
Oulton Broad North Signal Box also controls a number of colour light signals, standing either side of Oulton Broad Swing Bridge on the East Suffolk Line, and also controls a release lever (20) for the swing bridge. Like the signalling, this will in future be controlled from the signalling centre at Colchester.
The one box that does not control any colour lights is at nearby Lowestoft, an attractive GER Type 6 design dating from 1885 and housing a 61-lever frame, on which it now has just six working semaphores. Its preservation is not yet assured, but local talk suggests it might see future use as a “Man Shed” – a charity-supported meeting place for retired men!What was noticeable about my 3 December visit was how many of the new Class 755 bi-mode units are now in service. Despite continuing reliability issues – they have been nicknamed Basils, because so many are faulty! – I noted a total of six units in service during the day (755410/15/17/22/23/24), in a week that had seen them make their operating debut on the East Suffolk Line.Largest and grandest of the five boxes is Yarmouth Vauxhall, a GER Type 4 design that dates from 1884 and houses a 63-lever frame. Ironically for a box with the largest frame of the quintet, it has the fewest operational semaphores at just three (all at the platform ends), with a number of two-aspect colour light signals on the twin track section of line to Breydon Junction.Being concerned about the fate of the doomed boxes, I wrote to the Great Yarmouth Preservation Trust after featuring the box in a blog last month (November 2019). The Trust has won acclaim for its work in rejuvenating the town centre, but sadly did not bother to reply to my inquiry regarding the box. Heading next up the A47 towards Norwich, with a sight of Acle’s elusive up distant (A1) across the fields, my next port of call was the diminutive box at Acle, which stands on the down platform of this charmingly preserved station. This is a GER Type 3 design that dates from 1883 and houses a 20-lever frame, with seven working semaphores – the down distant being a colour light. Finally, a visit to Brundall Junction, a GER Type 3 design with a 35-lever frame that dates from 1883, so is the oldest of the five boxes. It earned a Grade II listing for being the best remaining example on the national network of a Type 3 design, and after closure in February is destined to have a new lease of life on the Mid-Norfolk Railway. The photo above shows the layout prior to re-modelling of the track. Brundall Junction has already seen some alteration ahead of the full re-signalling, notably renewal as a single lead of the junction for the Acle line to Great Yarmouth. The box still controls a dozen semaphores, including two distant signals in the up direction – note the yellow-coloured levers 32 and 35 below – and an impressively tall bracket housing junction signals that stands close to the box. Alongside the influx of new Class 755 units, there was a reminder of motive power recently lost on the Wherry Lines, when 37423 Spirit of the Lakes and 37409 Lord Hinton passed through Brundall with the Railhead Treatment Train (RHTT) on its seasonal circuit from Stowmarket – as seen below. Under its plans to complete the re-signalling project in February, services from Norwich to Great Yarmouth will be suspended from 1-16 February 2020, while the Lowestoft route will be closed from 3-23 February and the East Suffolk Line between Beccles and Lowestoft from 3-16 February. In preparation for this work, the Wherry Lines will also be closed for the weekend of 11/12 January.
Besides seeking new uses or owners for the signal boxes – already-closed Reedham Junction Signal Box is destined for the North Norfolk Railway – Network Rail is also inviting expressions of interest for the signalling equipment.
In its latest announcement regarding the project, it states: “Donations of redundant signalling equipment have already been made and we are continuing to identify opportunities for this equipment to find continued use and purpose.”Sincere thanks to Neil Kernohan of Network Rail for organising my 3 December visit, and to his colleague Adrian Webb for hosting my tour.
Grateful thanks too to the signallers I met during the day – Nigel Lyman (Oulton Broad South); Steve Bunyan (Lowestoft Central); Gareth Potter (Yarmouth Vauxhall); Paul Ebbens (Acle); and Steve Robbins (Brundall Junction).
My new book “Britain’s last mechanical signalling” is out now, and is available from publishers Pen & Sword, from good bookshops and from many online retailers.